Water everywhere but not a drop to drink – this is how it was last week in North Dunedin after an unfortunate incident when an old unclosed pipe led to possible contamination of the treated water supply with untreated water. Those cups of coffee we’ve all come to rely on were unavailable. The hospital, residential colleges, food suppliers and local households were thrown into disarray. Where to eat lunch safely became an important question around the university. After an exceedingly wet winter, just when we hoped the rain would stop and make the grass less muddy, all of a sudden we were gasping for clean water.
We were grateful that the Dunedin City Council moved quickly to avert the kind of catastrophe that occurred in Havelock North in August 2016 where over 5000 people became violently ill with campylobacter because of contaminated water. A general complacency about the safety of drinking water was well and truly shaken by that event. So when and how did Dunedin water become safe?
The crystal-clear streams and springs known to Māori in Ōtepoti at the time of early European settlement became contaminated as the town of Dunedin grew. By 1862, as Pamela Wood notes in Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia:
water was contaminated with “foul and feculent deposits”, the remains of dead animals, decaying matter and “every kind and description of abomination”.
According to a correspondent to the Otago Daily Times one of the causes of inebriety was the lack of access to ‘good pure water’. News of cholera outbreaks abroad and typhoid at home raised anxieties. It was English physician, John Snow’s work on cholera in London in 1854 which suggested that disease could be water-borne, rather than transmitted through the air by ‘miasmas’. His work showed the dangers of fecal material leaking into the water source. By the 1860s in Dunedin, it appeared that this might be all too common.
The appointment of the Dunedin Sanitary Commission in 1864 was a response to the dangers of filth in the streets. The town had seen a great growth in the number of tent dwellers on account of the gold rush whose only toilet facilities were the local flax bushes. Members of the Sanitary Commission learned of these primitive facilities and of wells built close to privies. According to a Dr Eccles, nearly half of the deaths in Dunedin were preventable:
Efficient drainage, good and abundant water supply, with pure air and wholesome food, would diminish the death rate, save many valuable lives, and restore to Dunedin its old reputation of healthfulness.”
Both an effective sewage system and a clean water supply seemed urgent but the cost of sanitary reform appeared prohibitive.
By 1865 a water works based on the Ross Creek reservoir was under construction by a private company and by 1872 there were nearly fourteen miles of pipes within the city. In April 1874, Professor James Gow Black, holder of the University of Otago’s chair of natural sciences, charged that there was an ‘increase in organic matter in the reservoir’. This led the Council to demand filter beds and strengthened the hand of those members who wanted to take over the water works, which eventually happened in 1875.
Three years earlier, the city surveyor, Samuel Mirams, proposed a plan for the disposal of sewage. He confidently suggested that ‘the harbor presents a natural and convenient outlet for all sewerage matter without detriment to anything or anybody’. By 1883, the Harbour Board gave the Council an ultimatum to remove the smelly polluting flow into the harbour but it was not until February 1907 that work began on the Lawyer’s Head (first suggested in 1865) outfall sewer. K.C. McDonald’s account of the growth of Dunedin makes clear the arguments and costs of designing systems to remove sewage and to provide clean water.
Over the twentieth century, sophisticated methods of water purification developed. In Dunedin these include including screening, aeration, coagulation, flocculation and disinfection.
Hidden behind the scenes and under the ground we too often take for granted the work of the chemists and engineers who helped develop water purification and working sewers. The residents of Christchurch know better since the earthquakes shook their infrastructure apart.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, an estimated 780 million people worldwide lack access to clean water and 2.5 billion (or 35% of the world’s population) lack access to improved sanitation. Unsafe drinking water leads to approximately 88% of deaths from diarrheal diseases. North Dunedin’s short ‘drought’ was perhaps a necessary reminder of a much greater global problem.
Barbara Brookes is co-editor of Corpus. She is Professor of History at the University of Otago, Dunedin, NZ.
- Pamela Wood, Dirt: Filth and Decay in a New World Arcadia, Auckland University Press, 2005.
- K.C. McDonald, City of Dunedin. A Century of Civic Enterprise, Dunedin City Corporation, 1965.
- Otago Daily Times, 10 August 1867, p.4.
- Otago Witness, 11 October 1867, p.1.
- Photos courtesy DCC archives